• The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) continues its development of low-power lasers for use on MDA-configured MQ-9 Reapers from General Atomics. Photo credit: General Atomics
     The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) continues its development of low-power lasers for use on MDA-configured MQ-9 Reapers from General Atomics. Photo credit: General Atomics

Missile Defense Agency Advances Laser-Blasting UAVs

September 7, 2018
Posted by Kimberly Underwood
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A new round of contracts aims to mature the Low Power Laser Demonstrator project.


The Missile Defense Agency has funded a second investment in an airborne low-power laser for missile defense. In some cases, it has increased initial funding levels by more than 200 percent with its August 31 contract award modifications to the Boeing Co., General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems and Lockheed Martin Corp.

The three companies are pursuing aspects of the agency’s development of a low-power laser weapon for use on an aircraft—such as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)—and in conjunction with the Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS).

The agency’s Advanced Technology Program Executive Office, which is spearheading the weapon’s development, must ensure that the BMDS “keeps pace with the continually evolving ballistic missile threat,” according to the agency.

The Missile Defense Agency, or MDA, began the effort last year by providing funding for the work to develop a demonstrator. In Phase 1 of the Low Power Laser Demonstrator (LPLD) effort, the agency tasked the three companies to come up with preliminary designs by this fall that address laser power and aperture size as well as laser integration and testing on a UAV.

Additional support for the LPLD effort includes work to develop by next April advanced tracking filter designs by Numerica Corp. of Fort Collins, Colorado, and Lockheed Martin’s Rotary and Mission Systems of Moorestown, New Jersey. Numerica is designing, developing and demonstrating an advanced filter for maneuvering targets using government-furnished technical data and metrics, while Lockheed Martin is evaluating and characterizing the advanced tracking filter design “to offer robust, consistent track estimation and prediction techniques,” according to the U.S. Defense Department.

Meanwhile, the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory—more commonly known as Draper Labs—is developing algorithms and software to support the tracking of highly maneuverable targets. The DOD reports that the Cambridge, Massachusetts, lab is “using a factorized fusion approach and [will] perform a trade study to evaluate the tracking performance impact of varying measurement update rates.”

The new funds that the MDA awarded last week will allow the three companies to complete a tailored Critical Design Review (CDR) to support the LPLD’s post-Preliminary Design Review (PDR) risk reduction analysis, the DOD outlined. Boeing received $20.5 million on top of the $8.9 million it got in December; General Atomics received $23.4 million, up from $10.6 million; and Lockheed Martin received $25.5 million, up from $12.2 million. The MDA, which is using research, development, test and engineering funds from this fiscal year for the effort, also extended the period of performance by an additional nine months to next July 31.

“If this technology proves to be feasible as part of a disciplined laser maturation and scaling effort, it could potentially offer defense against ballistic missiles in boost phase,” a Boeing spokesperson explained.

The spokesperson confirmed that Boeing teams in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Huntsville, Alabama, and Huntington Beach, California, were working to complete the tailored concept design review and post-preliminary risk reduction activities. “Boeing is developing a design to integrate low-power lasers on aircraft that may defend against ballistic missiles as part of a $29.4 million contract with the U.S. Missile Defense Agency,” the spokesperson said.

Given the challenging nature of airborne operations, the companies have designed the LPLD to meet certain size, weight and power considerations and to operate and fire the weapon, taking into account the movement of the aircraft, turbulence and other airflow issues.

“Airborne lasers rely on systems that minimize the impact of operating in diverse airborne conditions,” the Boeing spokesperson said. “Boeing has developed a way to stabilize the beam tracking in flight to enable these airborne laser weapons to engage long-range targets.”

Lockheed Martin added that it was looking toward the possibility of being able to demonstrate its design concept if the MDA pursues the LPLD further.

“As the program matures, we are creating a path to upgrade technology in our design as it becomes available in future phases,” said Sarah Reeves, vice president of Missile Defense Programs at Lockheed Martin Space. “We look forward to continued discussions with MDA about the path forward for our Low Power Laser Demonstrator program, and we hope to have the opportunity to demonstrate the capability of our concept.”

The low-power laser is slated for use on General Atomics’ MQ-9 UAV, known as the Reaper. As part of the effort, the company has configured specific Reapers for the MDA to conduct two passive BMDS tests as well as five continental U.S. tests.   

Already an important platform for the military, the Reaper would provide increased versatility with the advent of a low-power laser. In addition to preparing the design for a laser on a UAV, General Atomics is working to improve UAV endurance. The company successfully completed a historic trans-Atlantic flight in July using the cousin of the Reaper, the MQ-9B SkyGuardian, which took off from the training center in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and landed at the United Kingdom’s Fairford Royal Air Force Base 24 hours later, the company reported. To meet increased demand, General Atomics is expanding its flight test and training center at the Grand Sky Unmanned Aircraft System Business Park near Grand Forks from 5.5 acres to 20 acres and doubling its staff.

In addition to the MDA, the U.S. armed services, including the Marine Corps, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, are all pursuing laser weapons. The Navy is furthest along in making laser weapons a program of record. In January, the service took an important step forward in putting high-energy, beam-combined fiber laser weapons into its fleet when it awarded Bothell, Washington-based Lockheed Martin Aculight Corp. a $150 million contract to build two test systems for the Naval Sea Systems Command. As part of the Surface Navy Laser Weapon System Increment 1 award, the cost-plus-incentive-fee contract will field two High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler with Surveillance (HELIOS) systems, according to the DOD.

Under that contract, Lockheed Martin Aculight is developing, manufacturing and delivering 60- to 150-kilowatt test units by April 2020. One system will be installed aboard the DDG 51 FLT IIA, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, while the other will be used for land-based testing. 

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